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Developmental skeletal disease in dogs

“The beginning is the most important part of the work” - Plato.

The above quote is most relevantwhen discussing the effect diet can have on healthy bone development as it is from as early as 3 weeks of age when certain nutritional inadequacies and excesses can start to negatively impact the developing skeleton.  Here we outline what and why things can go wrong, and more importantly discuss how to feed fast growing large and giant breed puppies for optimal joint health.

A big problem for big dogs.
It is reported that approximately one in four dogs at referral veterinary practices will have some type of musculoskeletal disorder (Johnson et al, 1994).  Canine hip dysplasia and osteochondrosis make up the overwhelming majority of problems with a possible nutrition related cause; in fact canine hip dysplasia is the most frequently encountered orthopaedic disease in veterinary practice (Johnson et al, 1994), with the number of cases estimated to be in the millions worldwide.  But the sad truth is that all too often the cause is nutrition-related, however this can be seen as a positive misdemeanour, as while feeding incorrectly is easy, so too is feeding puppies correctly – it just takes a little bit of know how. 

In addition to nutritional causes, a large responsibility also lays on the shoulders of breeders to track, identify and eliminate genes that may lead to debilitating diseases commonly found in their breed, plus there are environmental factors which can play a role in the skeletal development of the young animal, but according to Professor Hazewinkel  (the now retired former head of orthopaedics  and clinical nutrition at Utrecht University, NL), only a few are known.  Risk factors also include breed, rapid weight gain and gender. 

The underlying message here is that developmental orthopaedic diseases are multifactorial and all factors should be taken into account in order to help prevent them.  While no one specific cause is considered ultimately responsible for all clinical manifestations, feeding puppies imbalanced foods containing excessive calcium and/or energy, together with rapid growth, appears to predispose puppies to certain disorders such as osteochondrosis (OC) and hip dysplasia (Hedhammer et al, 1974), therefore providing appropriate nutrition throughout the critical growth phase is critical. 

What is Canine Hip Dysplasia?
Simply put it is an abnormal development or growth of the hip joint, manifested by a laxity of surrounding soft tissues, instability of the  joint and the head of the femur and acetabulum (the cup-shaped cavity on the hip bone which houses the head of the femur) are often misshapen causing pain and osteoarthritis. 

What is Osteochondrosis (OC)?
Osteochondrosis is a common disorder that affects the growth cartilage of young, rapidly growing dogs. There is a disturbance in the normal conversion of cartilage into bone in specific locations, resulting in abnormal focal areas of thickened cartilage. If this occurs in the joint then these weak areas can cause the thickened cartilage to detach from the surrounding normal cartilage and form a “flap”. This process is called osteochondritis dissecans (or OCD). The flap of abnormal cartilage may detach from the surface of the joint and form what is termed a ‘joint mouse’.

Key nutritional factors:

In fast growing large and giant breeds with a cartilaginous and constant remodelling skeleton, a high dietary calcium and/or energy intake will increase the vulnerability for growth disorders to develop.  High protein intake on the other hand does not disturb ossification when provided in a balanced diet (Hazewinkel, 2004).

  • Energy (easy does it) – The final skeletal height of a dog is strongly influenced by genetics.  Providing adequate, but not excessive, amounts of energy allows a puppy to grow to its potential height at a slower and more controlled rate than if excess energy is provided.   Excess energy intake is exacerbated if free choice (ad libitum) feeding is implemented as it increases the risk of over consumption.

Recommendation: the best method for minimising excess energy intake is to portion control feed a suitable growth diet such as Eukanuba Puppy Large Breed.  Feeding according to the feeding guidelines on pack will help avoid maximal growth rate, allowing the skeleton to develop slowly eliminating the bio-mechanical stresses of excess weight and the changes in bone development that are associated with rapid growth rate (as outlined above).

  • Fat - Dietary fat is of importance as it contains over twice the energy per gram vs. protein and carbohydrates.  As the fat content in a diet increases so too does the energy density as so high-fat diets contribute significantly to excess energy intake. 

Recommendation: Feed a large breed puppy food containing lower fat levels compared to typical puppy foods and again feed according to the feeding guidelines on pack as this will help maintain a lean body condition.

  • Calcium – Studies have shown serious consequences for bone development in large breed puppies (Hazewinkel et al, 1985) and yet it is something which is commonly supplemented into the diet of puppies. The reason most often cited for this is for ‘bone support’ because it is believed it will help to prevent skeletal abnormalities.  Puppies cannot control their calcium uptake and will have to passively accept up to 53% of the calcium in any diet even if the amount being fed is far too high (Tryfonidou, 2002). Therefore oversupplementation with calcium poses a real risk for the puppy.

Recommendation: Regardless of the good intentions there are very real risks when calcium supplements are fed.  Studies show that a level of 0.8% is optimal for the larger breed puppy.   

  • Other nutritional factors – Puppies fed improperly formulated homemade diets may receive insufficient or excessive calcium leaving at a higher risk of developing a skeletal abnormality such as hip dysplasia or osteochondrosis.

What you can do from a feeding perspective to help prevent these developmental disorders:

  • Avoid feeding puppies free choice (ad libitum), particularly with high-energy dense foods such as a small breed puppy food or a puppy food designed to suit “All Breeds.” Instead feed an energy controlled diet suitable for the larger breed puppy until adult maturity.
  • Start as you mean to go on.  Begin weaning with Eukanuba Puppy Large Breed.  And try to avoid feeding the pups the same energy dense diet the bitch is eating, therefore her food must be kept out of the puppies’ reach as best as possible.

3) Avoid excessive intake of calcium and vitamin D from food, treats and supplements.
4) Avoid any supplements if a complete and balanced puppy diet is provided
5) Feed Eukanuba Puppy Large Breed for 12 months for large breeds (adult weight 25-40kg) and 24 months for giant breeds (+40kg adult weight)
6) Avoid feeding an adult diet to large breed puppies as this puts them at risk of consuming too much calcium.  These diets are substantially lower in energy that puppy foods and therefore the puppy will eat more of it to meet its energy needs. Even if the calcium content is close to 0.8%, for example 1.1%, this means the total calcium the puppy will consume will be greater than safely required.
6) Finally, a good mantra is “choose the appropriate diet and feed it appropriately”

It’s a team effort here.  Breeders, the pet food industry and vets all play a crucial role in minimising the risk of skeletal problems that have such a major impact on the long term well-being of puppies.  If afflicted during puppyhood improper feeding will have lifelong detrimental consequences all throughout adulthood. The good news – you can make a difference.

Johnson JA: Incidence of Canine Appendicular Musculoskeletal disorders in 16 Veterinary Teaching Hospitals.  Vet Comp Orth and Trauma 7 :56-59. (1994)
Hazewinkel. H.A.W: Do Different Dog Breeds Have Different Requirements to Prevent Disease Later in Life, Managing Puppy and Kitten Growth for a Healthy Adulthood, pp.12.  (2004)
Hedhammer, A, Wu F, Krook L, et al: Overnutrition and skeletal disease – an experimental study in growing Great Dane dogs, Cornell Vet 64 (Suppl 5): 1 -159 (1974)
Hazewinkel, HAW: Goedegebuure SA, Poulos PW et al: Influences of chronic calcium excess on the skeletal development of growing Great Danes, J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 21:377-391. (1985)
Tryfonidou MA, van den Boek J et al. ntestinal calcium absorption in growing dogs is influenced by calcium intake and age but not by growth rate. J Nutr;132 (11):3363-3368 . (2002)

Developmental skeletal disease in dogs
Developmental skeletal disease in dogs
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